Astrobotany Outreach at UW Science Expeditions

Today, I headed over with members of the Gilroy Lab to the UW Health Sciences Learning Center to participate in Science Expeditions 2017. Science Expeditions is a public event where different researchers around the University present their work. Our focus for the day was plant cell biology and microscopy, but we talked about astrobotany research as well.

astrobotany uw health sciences learning center
Folks gather around to learn about UW’s scientific research

We drove over from the Botany building and started setting up around 9:40 am. We brought 2 microscopes, 2 handheld microscopes, 2 monitors, some vegetables, slides, a replica of the VEGGIE plant growth system, a model of a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and some M&Ms. We also brought a passion for science.

expeditions 2017 astrobotany uw hslc
The Gilroy Lab’s station at Science Expeditions 2017

There was a great turnout and lots of people stopped to peruse our station. We had cross-sections of celery available for viewing under the microscope; their vascular bundles and collenchyma were very clear. One kid asked me, “Have you grown celery in space?” I looked at Simon (our PI) uncertainly and said “You know, I don’t think so.” Simon also shook his head skeptically, “No, I don’t think so. No, we haven’t. You see, the thing with eating celery is you burn more calories chewing than you actually retain from it so it’s not very good for feeding astronauts.” Very cool. Then the boy asked me, “Have you been in space?” I laughed.  “No I actually haven’t. How about you? Do you want to go to space?” “No,” he replied, “I think it’s too dangerous.” That could very well be.

It was a good time talking to people about our research and explaining aspects of plant biology. It is absolutely true that teaching something helps you learn it. The gaps in my knowledge became so apparent when someone came up with a good question I did not know the answer to.

I walked around for a bit and visited Björn from the Biotron laboratory, because his station was relevant to astrobotany. He had a clinostat and a ground control plant growth module from the Space Shuttle Columbia Launch STS-73. Read about these below:

astrobotany uw clinostat biotron
This plant clinostat rotates every 20 minutes. You can see compared to the control (NO ROTATION) that it is growing perfectly sideways. If you were to look at its roots they would also be parallel to the ground. Clinostats are used to mimic microgravity.
STS-73 Columbia Plant Growth Module Astrobotany
This plant growth module was the ground control for STS-73 Columbia in 1995. This module did not actually go to space, but was the control for an exact copy that flew on that mission.

All in all, it was great seeing so many families and children enthusiastic about science research. They’d all make good astrobotanists, I think.

Let’s grow plants in space.

Astrobotany is a Team Effort and I Also Need to Get My Lab Book In Order

The lab was busy even on a friday afternoon; a reminder that our research is a team effort. An engineer was building the frame for a device I do not even know about yet. The Madison West High School Rocketry Team was sowing arabidopsis seedlings on petri dishes for their next rocket launch. Dr. Richard Barker was coding. And I came in to join the other biologists doing bench work. A good day to research plants in space!

I needed to get back on track in my research because my most recent attempt at genotyping failed. I am looking for a homozygous mutant which I can identify using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis. My last gel came back with no bands, which, in simpler terms, is not good. I wondered if my genomic DNA was bad. It was my first time doing a clean gDNA extraction so it was very well possible that the DNA I used was less than ideal.

Turns out, it was less than less than ideal. I used our nanodrop to measure the nucleic acid concentration of my DNA. It was a whopping 3.8 ng/μl. To give you a good idea of just how less than less than ideal that is, we want to use DNA with concentrations higher than 100.0 ng/μl. Geez…

Another researcher in the lab, Big Rich, was nice enough to let me use some of his good gDNA for another different PCR I wanted to run.  He’s done the extraction a lot more than I have and he is a lot better than I am at it.

I am targeting one of my peroxidase genes right now for cloning and the first wet lab step in the cloning process is to run PCR. I had already designed primers using computational resources and ran it through a simulation in-silica (on the computer). It was now time to see if these primers and restriction enzymes were going to work for me.

The gene of interest is 7kb (around 7000 letters of code [literally 7000 letters of ATGGGCAG…]) so I had to change the time of extension of the DNA from a more standard 2.5 minutes to 7.5 minutes which, repeated 34x (in addition to the other PCR steps), came up to be around 6 hours. Jacob, another researcher in the lab moseyed on over just to see how long my PCR was going to take. It was actually shorter than we both expected, but I left it for overnight.

Part of what I like about working in the lab is the challenge, but another part is definitely the camaraderie. Everyone is super helpful and wants everyone else to succeed. Need clean gDNA? Someone’s got it. Need econoTAQ? Check the fridge. Want to talk about science or traveling or anything else?  Between the professors, the rocket scientists, the biologists, the programmers, and the engineers, we’ve got everything.  🙂

Let’s grow plants in space.

P.S. But also my lab book is a mess and I need to get it in order.

Astrobotany Research Drives Invention and Can Also Be Difficult…

Yesterday, myself and some other members of the lab headed over to the very cool Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building (the “WID”) to do some learning.

WID astrobotany Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery; UW-Madison

The learning in question was a quick course on the basics of a new research device. One of our very talented engineers, Jerry Miao, is developing a much needed timelapse plant imaging device called FlashLapse for plant biology research.

astrobotany flashlapse
an old flashlapse prototype (it has come a long way in a short time)

FlashLapse is a really neat piece of equipment that contains motors, LED lights, and an arduino controller and raspberry pi camera.  It takes high definition photographs of plants in petri dishes over a specified time period.  Why do we need this?  A lot of us bench biologists in the lab are interested in working with mutant plants.  For instance, we know the TOUCH-2 (Tch-2) gene is manipulated by spaceflight.  So now we’re interested if the plant grows differently or if the root patterns are different if we manipulate Tch-2.  We want to take a look at the plant growing over time and we even have software to measure physical growth patterns of the plants.

We gathered in the WID’s outreach/engineering lab and Dr. Richard Barker had us all make biologist and engineer pairs.  I got lucky and was assigned Jerry (the inventor of the device) as my engineer. Learning it was going to be a walk in the park since Jerry literally built the thing from scratch… but Richard noticed and told Jerry not to help me.  Jerry and I talked and I was amazed at how far FlashLapse had come.  I remember working with his first prototype back in late 2016.

We learned the basics of FlashLapse code in that session, changing brightness and color of LED lights for the plants as well as programming the motor to move for gravitropism assays.  You can pretty much create whatever lighting you want, which is useful because plants grow differently under different color lighting.

I was very proud to see a device that was a product of our lab.  As a molecular biologist in the lab, often the results I get take months and are more or less intangible.  It was relieving to see our engineers create a powerful tool.  Maybe I should have become an engineer… but nah, Wisconsin’s engineering program is too rigorous.

Let’s grow plants in space.

Shenzhou 8 Study Highlights Changes in Plant Metabolism in Response to Spaceflight Stress

A new paper has been released by scientists in China studying changes in gene expression in the model organism Arabidopsis Thaliana. This experiment used special biological hardware called SIMBOX (Science in Microgravity BOX) to fly plants aboard the Shenzhou 8 Spacecraft (November  of 2011).  It is understood that a spaceflight environment alters gene expression compared to earth and this study examined plant transcriptomes.  Microarray analysis was used to compare three treatments: microgravity (Shenzhou 8), 1g centrifugal force also onboard Shenzhou, and earth ground control.  The major takeaways from this study: genes involved in plant stress response, genes involved in microgravity response, and genes involved in oxidative stress response were all regulated by spaceflight.  This experiment is more confirmation that plants respond on a molecular level to the effects of space environments.  You can check out the paper here:

The impact of space environment on gene expression in Arabidopsis thaliana seedlings

What Are Some of the Challenges of Growing Plants in Space?

We’ve created a new page, Challenges of the Voidwhich explores the factors of space that impact plant biology.  Check it out!  It’s in the lab. Here is what it entails so far.

Surviving a Space Environment

One of humanity’s greatest shifts was a switch from hunter-gatherer clans to an agrarian type society. By becoming stewards of the land we had everything to gain.  The first era of agriculture paved the way for stability and sustenance that gave rise to the first ancient civilizations.  Another era of agriculture is soon to be upon us: we must grow plants in space. Successful cultivation of plants in spaceflight environments will be a key step for the first space civilizations. Just as our ancestors learned to grow crops, we will do the same: in space.

What is a spaceflight environment/where will we grow our plants in space?

Clearly, plants cannot grow or survive in the vacuum of space.  There is no oxygen, no defense, very little gravity, and no opportunity for nutrient uptake.  Growing plants in human spaceflight systems such as a shuttle or aboard the International Space Station helps take care of a few of these issues right off the bat.  Firstly, human spaceflight systems provide oxygen for its inhabitants and can for plants as well.  Secondly, spaceflight systems are shelters that can physically shield inhabitants from solar radiation.  The things that we cannot yet protect our plants from are the effects of microgravity, ionizing radiation and intense oxidative stress.


Many people believe that space is a zero gravity environment and that a lack of gravity causes weightlessness.  This is a common misconception.  The truth is gravity is present everywhere in space.  Everything in the universe is falling and is affected by gravity.  The orbit of the International Space Station is due to gravity.  Using the term zero gravity is misleading.  Zero gravity implies zero acceleration which is not true because the ISS is constantly accelerating towards Earth.  A more scientifically accurate term would be microgravity.  Microgravity is really micro-acceleration and astronauts appear weightless because the effect of gravity grows weaker with increased distance from a large planetary body.

Ionizing Radiation/Galactic Cosmic Rays

Galactic Cosmic Rays are a type of ionizing radiation that is difficult to defend against.  Protons (and other heavier elements) are accelerated to the speed of light after blasting off from exploding stars. This strong radiation bombards organisms and damages molecular structure.  Unlike solar radiation, GCRs are difficult to defend against physically.  The Earth generates a magnetic field that can deflect this radiation to keep our planet safe.  This strength comes from sheer size.  Obviously a spacecraft is much, much, much smaller than a planet so it cannot generate a magnetic field that strong.  This secondary radiation poses a huge health problem for astronauts as well as plants.

We’ve Planted a Digital Garden (A Space Garden)

All of us here at are pleased to show you the fruits of our labor: a brand new garden. All of the plants in our garden have been grown in space. So far we have planted zucchini and arabidopsis. Take a stroll through, if you like, and click on a plant to find out more. You can find it under “the garden” on our menu.


NASA Discovers Potentially Habitable Planets Surrounding Nearby Star

On 2/22/17 NASA announced news that their Spitzer telescope had discovered a seven planet system around TRAPPIST-1, a nearby star. TRAPPIST-1 is around 40 lightyears away, in the Aquarius constellation. Three of these planets are in the CHZ (Circumstellar Habitable Zone) which holds the promise of liquid water and consequently the ability to support life.  This is especially promising for astrobotanists.  If these planets are in the CHZ and have Earth-like similarities, plant life is a possibility.  It is much too early to speculate, but this development will be watched closely by all involved in the astrobiology and astrobotany community.